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Blog: NOAA on the front lines in fascinating, foreboding Antarctica

By Vice Admiral Michael S. Devany and Dr. Richard W. Spinrad
February 29, 2016 At McMurdo Station, we were, quite literally, two guys on ice. As guests of the National Science Foundation, we stopped there this month en route to the South Pole. NSF supports scientific research and environmental stewardship, and maintains the U.S. geopolitical presence in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
A view of the Southern Ocean from Antarctica’s coast.

McMurdo is a world unto itself. About 1,000 people populate this self-contained city where scientists are conducting some of the most incredible research in the world. From McMurdo and two other stations, NOAA operates the Antarctic Ultraviolet Monitoring Network, which measures radiation and the effects of ozone depletion. Every 15 minutes, vital data are collected and fed into UV products. Around the world, millions of people depend on these products as safeguards against harmful sun rays.

What makes McMurdo even more intriguing is its tie to history. The huts that famed polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton used a century ago have been preserved, still stocked with original tins of cocoa and beef tongue. It was Scott who discovered plant fossils, proving Antarctica was once forested and joined to other continents.

The huts that famed polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton used a century ago have been preserved, still stocked with original tins of food.
Artifacts on Antarctica
The huts that famed polar explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton used a century ago have been preserved, still stocked with original tins of food. (NOAA)

But if McMurdo is another world, the South Pole is another galaxy. A three-hour flight from McMurdo gets you up there — and we do mean up there because the South Pole is 10,000 feet above sea level. It was -45 degrees Fahrenheit when we landed, and a mere 100-yard hike felt like a marathon.

Our first stop was NOAA’s Atmospheric Research Laboratory where decades of continuous air sampling document the influence of aerosols, ozone, greenhouse gases, and solar radiation on our climate. These measurements show how C02 is steadily increasing in our atmosphere, even when generated 10,000 miles from the South Pole. On a positive note, there have been signs of impending ozone recovery at the South Pole since the Montreal Protocol began phasing out many ozone-depleting chemicals. Antarctica is one of the most pristine regions on earth, and the U.S. has long been a stalwart supporter of both protecting it and investigating it as a matchless natural laboratory for scientific research that can be conducted nowhere else on our planet.

Already evident on the South Pole are the far-reaching effects of pollution. Carried by wind from lower latitudes, the impact of dust and black carbon are apparent. Snow and ice reflect solar energy back into space, but when darkened by these particles they absorb more of the sun’s heat, hastening melting. NOAA researchers are international pioneers in developing observations and collecting the environmental intelligence essential to mitigating black carbon’s role in climate change.

Still a mystery is why many marine species on this vast continent are affected by the strange phenomenon known as “polar gigantism.” Under the icy surface, Antarctica’s oxygen-rich waters are a kaleidoscope of life. And much of this life is surprisingly huge. Species such as sea spiders, sponges, worms and single-celled organisms can be gigantic. Sea spiders, for example, are usually the size of a dime. In Antarctica, they’re as large as dinner plates. We saw sea lice that appeared magnified.

Much about Antarctica remains a mystery. Hidden under the ice is an irreplaceable road map to our past. Antarctica is also an indispensable window on our future, especially in understanding the profound implications of climate change. We’re proud that NOAA’s remarkable science, service and stewardship are on the front lines.

Penguins are Antarctica’s iconic, cold-weather bird.
Penguins are Antarctica’s iconic, cold-weather bird. (NOAA)

 

About the authors

Vice Admiral Devany is NOAA's deputy secretary for operations; Dr. Richard Spinrad is NOAA's chief scientist.